In person, he comes across more like the manic, wired bank robber in Dog Day than the guy with the steely sinister gravitas of Michael Corleone. Nevertheless, he likes to talk about that role and analyze why it became so culturally resonant.
Pacino’s Michael Corleone embodies perhaps better than any other character the bitter unraveling of the American dream in the postwar 20th century—heroism and idealism succumbing to the corrupt and murderous undercurrent of bad blood and bad money. Watching it again, the first two parts anyway, it feels almost biblical: each scene virtually carved in stone, a celluloid Sistine Chapel painted with a brush dipped in blood.
And it’s worth remembering that Pacino almost lost the Michael Corleone role because he troubled himself so much over the character. This morning in Beverly Hills, he recounts the way he fought for a contrarian way of conceiving Michael, almost getting himself fired.
First of all, he didn’t want to play Michael at all. “The part for me was Sonny,” he says, the hotheaded older son of Marlon Brando’s Godfather played by James Caan. “That is the one I wanted to play. But Francis [Ford Coppola, the director] saw me as Michael. The studio didn’t, everybody else didn’t want me in the movie at all. Francis saw me as Michael, and I thought ‘How do I do this?’ I really pondered over it. I lived on 91st and Broadway then and I’d walk all the way to the Village and back ruminating. And I remember thinking the only way I could do this is if, at the end of the day, you don’t really know who he is. Kind of enigmatic.”
It didn’t go over well, the way he held back so much at first, playing reticence, playing not-playing. If you recall, in that opening wedding scene he virtually shrinks into his soldier’s uniform. “Everything to me was Michael’s emergence—in the transition,” he says, “and it’s not something you see unfold right away. You discover that.
“That was one of the reasons they were going to fire me,” he recalls. “I was unable to articulate that [the emergence] to Francis.”
Pacino admits his initial embodiment of Michael looked “like an anemic shadow” in the dailies the producers were seeing. “So they were looking at the [rushes] every day in the screening room and saying, ‘What’s this kid doing? Who is this kid?’ Everybody thought I would be let go—including Brando, who was extremely kind to me.”
Pacino was mainly an off-Broadway New York stage actor at that point, with only one major film role to his name, a junkie in The Panic in Needle Park. He was risking what would be the role of a lifetime, one that put him alongside an acting immortal like Brando, because he insisted that the role be a process, that it fit the method he used as a stage actor. He studied with Lee Strasberg, guru of Method acting, and he is now co-president of the Actors Studio. “I always had this thing with film,” he says. “I had been in one,” he says. “And [as a stage actor] I always had this sort of distance between myself and film.
“What kept me in the movie,” he recalls, “was my good fortune that they had shot the scene where Michael shoots the cop [early on, out of sequence]. And I believe that was enough for Francis to convince the powers that be that they should keep me.”